In an age of climate change and rising population, how are we going to feed everyone in 2050? It’s a question that is occupying some of the brightest minds in agricultural science, and hundreds of said minds have contributed to the latest book from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
The book, Food Security in a World of Natural Resource Scarcity, models various agricultural technologies across different regions of the world to identify the most promising interventions. The result is a list of 11 technologies that could raise yields by 67% by 2050.
I’ll warn you beforehand – there’s no urban skyscraper farms here, or terraforming the Sahara. These are technologies worthy of the Campaign for Boring Development, but all the more accessible for it. If it’s all too much, just skip to the video at the bottom.
Here’s the list:
- No-till agriculture uses minimal ploughing, as this disrupts the soil and leads to erosion and loss of fertility. Seeds are planted directly, and mulches and cover crops are used. There has been an explosion of no or low-till agriculture. Starting in Brazil and South America, it has spread and doubled in the last decade. A quarter of US farmers now use the technique, catching up to countries like Paraguay, where 90% of agriculture is no-till.
- Integrated soil fertility management – is all about caring for the soil, and then letting the soil care for the plants, by using crop residues, manure, and compost, to add organic matter to the soil.
- precision agriculture uses sensors in the fields, satellite imagery and GPS systems to monitor crops closely, intervening at the right moments with water or fertiliser. Most often used in the US and Germany.
- Organic agriculture relies entirely on biological processes to nurture soil and plants, and control pests and weeds. Yields are sometime lower in organic farming, depending on the crop, but they use less energy and inputs, are better for biodiversity and there is less risk of erosion and soil depletion.
- Nitrogen-use efficiency is the science of using nitrogen fertiliser well, by measuring the amount distributed and the amount used by plants, and minimising the difference.
- Water harvesting uses tillage techniques, plant residues and run-off control to keep water in the soil when it rains, and available to plants for longer. It is a centuries-old technique used in arid regions.
- Drip irrigation was developed in Israel and consists of delivering water and nutrients directly to the roots of plants through networks of pipes or hoses. No water is wasted, making this a useful technology in situations of water scarcity.
- Sprinkler irrigation delivers water to crops to schedule, at the times of day when plants are most able to absorb it and less of it is likely to evaporate.
- Drought tolerant varieties are strains that will survive periods of drought and still deliver a yield. There are various characteristics that might make a plant hardier, like larger root architecture and ability to draw water, or maize plants with thicker leaves so that the seed doesn’t wither and shrink.
- Heat-tolerant varieties are slightly different and still in its infancy, with plant breeders and biotech scientists working on plants able to withstand extreme temperatures.
- Crop protection is about preventing pests, which are still responsible for a quarter of crop losses. There’s a real science here involving older techniques around when to plant to avoid insect swarming seasons, intercropping, and crop rotation, as well as newer techniques such as pest-resistant varieties and pesticides.
What I like about this approach is that there are no techno-fixes here, but no opposition to technology either. We need drought resistant varieties – if they come through genetic engineering, genetic markers or conventional breeding, so be it. Likewise with synthetic inputs. Where they can be used wisely and sustainably, we can’t rule them out on idealistic grounds. Whatever works, delivering yields without exhausting soil, water, or fossil fuels. Ancient customs sit alongside the latest digital tech. We’re going to need a bit of everything.
“The reality is that no single agricultural technology or farming practice will provide sufficient food for the world in 2050,” as lead author Mark Rosegrant says. “Instead we must advocate for and utilize a range of these technologies in order to maximize yields.”